We have reported a number of fire festivals on this blog most of which have been associated with Guy Fawkes Day or New Years, but a relatively new fire festival has perhaps the country’s oldest credentials. Ask a person in the street when Imbolc is and they will doubtless look at you in confusion and state when is that? Spelling it out will not help either as its one of those words said differently to spoken! However, to those local to the town of Marsden in Yorkshire and they will know it for its celebration has been a major event in the town drawing 1000s of curious onlookers to witness this colourful custom.
Fire up a festival
How did this unique and remarkable event begin. In the Huddersfield Gazette Angie Boycott-Garnett the organiser records that it was the very cold winter of 1993 which made her think that:
“We wanted to put on an event in the cold winter time when people can feel down…The idea came from a group of us who were part of the now defunct Kirklees Countryside Volunteers and put on a lot of events together.”
Why might wonder why an ancient pagan festival was the event they came up with Boycott-Garnett explains that
“Duggs Carre came up with the idea for the Imbolc festival. He’d heard about the celebration, which takes place in-between two of the eight periods of the Pagan calendar year. Imbolc celebrates the end of winter and the first stirrings of spring, while encouraging the idea of regrowth and renewal.”
What started out as a local small event involving a walk through the woods with key entertainers: fire dancers and eaters and fire sculptures grew and grew. Originally they thought the event would be a one off. Angie talked about how they set up their first event.
“We thought it would be good to bring people together. The first was quite small and revolved around a walk through the woods near Stannedge Tunnel, where entertainers would be performing. We had things like fire sculptures, fire dancers and eaters. We originally thought it would be a one off but the event was very successful. So we decided to run it again but we wanted to make sure that the community involved to keep it going.”
The event has continued to go from strength to strength, although the cost of organising it, around £7000 meant that since 2014 it has been every two years.
Fire in the belly
Imbolc is an old Celtic tradition traditionally followed Candlemas and remembered the longest in Ireland. It was believed to remember the coming of spring and its etymology may refer to the pregnancy of ewes, washing oneself in a ritual cleanse or budding. Whichever the day has become an important one to neopagans and as such Marsden has developed into a major celebratory event for those in this community.
Baptism of fire
My first Marsden Imbolc I did not know what to expect except that it would be evocatively captivating and indeed it was. The event with an atmospheric procession from the Old Good’s Yard. To the sound of bagpipes and drums, hooded figures wearing animal and solar and lunar masks loom into view carrying torches.The most ominous being the large figure of a crow man who loomed over the watching crowds. Said to represent Druids and Celtic gods they certainly added an air of the mysterious. Following up these mysterious figures was a procession of lanterns made by local children and driven forward by a steel band. The crowds which watched this atmospheric entourage joined the end and we made our way to the site of the festival.
There to the rhythmic intoxicating sounds of the drums these masked figures with their torches stood in a formation and swirled around their torches in a spectacular mesmerizing pattern. Whilst they did this tableaux of Spring scenes where light and they blazed in their pure white light against the pitch black night.
Fight fire with fire
The main event is the battle between Jack Frost and the Green Man. This symbolic battle is said to represent the fight between winter and spring. The towering figure of Jack Frost eerily comes into view covered in fireworks he sparkles and spits fire into the air accompanied by masked torch holding acolytes. After his display the Green man makes his appearance. He too is associated with masked and hooded figures carrying torches and accompanied by the sound of bagpipes which drifted through the cold icy air, he was ready to confront Jack Frost. They fronted onto each other whilst the hooded figures of each side swirl and throw their torches to symbolise conflict. The Green man stares into Jack Frost as they stand facing each other and then as the drum rhythm builds Jack turns and is defeated…to cheers, whistles and claps from the crowd. Winter is over and spring is here.
The evening ended with a riotous flash of white light as an array of fireworks launched into the air and overall a wonderful experience sadly one would have to wait two years to witness it again but well worth the wait!